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Their dog’s sudden death was too much to bear — so they cloned him

Shadow and Chance, two brand-new boxer puppies, were cloned from cells taken from Dylan almost two weeks after he died. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Dylan, a boxer, meant everything to Laura Jacques, a dog walker from West Yorkshire, England. "I fell in love with him from day one," Jacques told The Post. When the 8-year-old canine was diagnosed with a brain tumor in June and given about a year to live, she was devastated.

"Within 19 days of the diagnosis, he was gone," she said. "I was still in denial about the fact that he was even going to die in the near future."

Her partner, Richard Remde, was grieving as well, but his biggest concern was Jacques's well-being.

"I felt I needed to do something to try to make it better," Remde said.

This is the part of the story where most folks would go looking for a puppy to adopt. But instead, Remde packed up some samples of Dylan's tissue and got on a plane to South Korea. His destination was the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, which clones dogs for $100,000 a pup. The company's founder has a dark past of possible scientific misconduct and fraud, but his career has seen a second wind, with Sooam producing hundreds of healthy canine clones.

Scientists create the world’s first in vitro puppies

At first, Jacques and Remde simply hoped to put some of Dylan's cells in storage with Sooam so they could consider creating a clone somewhere down the line. But on Dec. 26, the couple welcomed a Boxing Day boxer into the family. And a second clone of Dylan followed the next day.

Sooam clones puppies by taking donor eggs and pulling the genetic material out of them. Then, cells cultivated from the donor dog are slipped inside, and the whole thing is zapped with electricity to encourage everything to fuse. If it works, the egg starts growing like it's fertilized and becomes an embryo — but the genetic material is 100 percent provided by the donor dog, not the egg donor.

This embryo is then be implanted into a surrogate, and with any luck, a puppy follows a couple months later.

"We didn't think it were going to work," Remde said, explaining that cells taken immediately after Dylan's death hadn't been properly refrigerated and had failed to grow. Sooam offered to try with older cells— ones that had spent a week in the deep freeze, and were now 12 days deceased — but it was a long shot. The company had never cloned using cells that old.

Scientists debate the ethics of an unnerving gene-editing technique

"It was never our plan to rush into cloning Dylan, but by the time those cells had gotten to the stage where they were ready to either freeze or clone, they just weren't strong enough that they could guarantee they'd survive being frozen," Jacques said. "We kind of felt like it might be our only chance. We didn't take this decision lightly — it was an emotional rollercoaster."

Remde and Jacques say they've been happy with the process so far, and that they're eager to get to know their new puppies — and their puppies' surrogate mothers, which they plan on adopting. That's going to bring their household pup count up to eight, but they feel it's the right thing to do.

It would be easy to assume that Remde and Jacques expect the puppies, Shadow and Chance, to be perfect replicas of their beloved dog. But genes aren't everything, and the identical pups will likely grow into very different dogs than Dylan — and even from each other. Fortunately, Remde and Jacques more than understand this. It's actually the way they want it to be.

"To be honest, I don’t want them to be too similar to Dylan," Jacques said. "My bond with Dylan … I'd never want these puppies to be an exact replica. We're not trying to replace him."

In many ways, it seems that Jacques and Remde are treating Chance and Shadow as the puppies Dylan never had the chance to father. The puppies are a piece of him, and a reminder — but not a replacement. They just happen to be a pair of very expensive perfect copies.

Cloning puppies — and learning how to give dogs IVF treatments — might seem frivolous at face value. But many argue that these procedures provide scientists with the funds and the subjects they need to push cloning technology forward. Dylan's case is of special interest, since his cells were in less-than-pristine condition when the cloning took place. Doggy DNA that's spent a few days in a deep freeze is obviously a far cry from, say, mammoth DNA that's been frozen in a glacier for thousands of years. But one day, researchers like the ones at Sooam could be using these techniques to save endangered species, or even to bring extinct ones back to life.

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